'First They Killed My Father': Film Review | Telluride 2017

An international tragedy turned into an overly tasteful film.

Angelina Jolie directs a heartfelt film about the Cambodian genocide and its impact on one close-knit family.

No one doubts the humanitarian bona fides of actor-director Angelina Jolie. Her work with the United Nations has been rightly praised, and two of the films she directed — In the Land of Blood and Honey and Unbroken — demonstrated her commitment to making movies with a social conscience. Her newest movie, First They Killed My Father, which had its world premiere in Telluride and debuts this month on Netflix and in a small number of theaters, may be closest to her on a personal level. One of her adopted children, Maddox, was born in Cambodia, and she has returned to the country many times and developed a strong friendship with Loung Ung, whose memoir about the Cambodian genocide served as the basis of the film.

Jolie secured permission to film in Cambodia with many Cambodians in the cast and crew, from producer Rithy Panh (director of The Missing Picture) to most below-the-line personnel. The result is a well-crafted labor of love that certainly will educate some viewers about the tragic history of Cambodia during the 1970s. What the film doesn’t have is the visceral impact that would take it from a well-intentioned treatise to a searing work of art.

Jolie clearly thought about how graphic a film she wanted to make, and it was probably her intention to steer clear of disturbingly violent images. Even when filmmakers intend to condemn violence, if they dwell on shocking details there is always a danger of attracting rather than repelling some viewers. So most of the violence in the film — including the murder that gives the pic its title — takes place offscreen or with very oblique, blurred images. This is admirable on a theoretical level, but it means the feature sometimes becomes too repressed and repetitious.

Jolie and co-writer Ung begin the movie with some historical background, underscoring American responsibility for the tragedy in Cambodia. The secret bombing of the country during the Vietnam War destabilized the country and led to the growing power of the Khmer Rouge. When America withdrew from Vietnam and Cambodia in 1975, there were no forces to halt the ruthless advances of the most radical fringes of the Communist movement.

After this historical introduction, the film shifts its point of view to the experiences of Ung (played by an expressive young actress, Sreymoch Sareum), following her as her family is uprooted from their home, relocated and brutalized. Children are recruited as soldiers in the ongoing war against the Vietnamese.  Unfortunately, by limiting its perspective to Loung’s own vision, we never really learn much about the causes of this war between Cambodia and Vietnam or about the mass exterminations carried about by the Khmer Rouge. (Some of the horrific facts and figures are saved for an end title card.) This child’s-eye approach leads to some confusion not only about the larger political situation but also about how the family is divided and then partially reunited.

Despite these frustrating omissions, a few individual scenes are effective, including examples of brutal indoctrination by the Khmer Rouge and a striking aerial shot that shows children wandering through a field trying to avoid the land mines that dot the terrain. Oscar-winning cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire) makes a major contribution to the film, and composer Marco Beltrami has crafted a haunting score.

Sareum gives an affecting performance, and the very attractive actors who play her parents — Kompheak Phoeung as her father and Socheata Sueng as her mother — convey a mournful sense of the destruction of this family, but many other characters are sketched too superficial, especially for a film with a running time well over two hours.

Inevitably a movie about the Cambodian genocide will invite comparison to the one classic Hollywood film on the subject, Roland Joffe’s 1984 Oscar winner, The Killing Fields. Joffe chose the opposite approach from what Jolie has taken; he highlighted the atrocities committed during the era as well as the emotional connection between the characters. In a sense his approach was more conventional, but I suspect that people who saw the pic 30 years ago can still remember some of the horrific and shattering scenes from it. I seriously doubt that Jolie’s film will have anything close to the same impact.

Cast: Sreymoch Sareum, Kompheak Phoeung, Socheata Sveng, Dara Heng, Kimhak Mun
Director: Angelina Jolie
Screenwriters: Angelina Jolie, Loung Ung; based on the book by Loung Ung
Producers: Rithy Panh, Angelina Jolie, Ted Sarandos, Michael Vieira
Executive producers: Loung Ung, Maddox Jolie-Pitt, Adam Somner, Pauline Fischer, Sarah Bowen, Charles Schlissel
Director of photography: Anthony Dod Mantle
Production designer: Tom Brown
Costume designer: Ellen Mirojnick
Editors: Xavier Box, Patricia Rommel
Music: Marco Beltrami
Venue: Telluride Film Festival

136 minutes